Arguably the “golden age” of British children’s literature, and the period which brought us beloved classics including Peter Pan (1904 and 1911), The Wizard of Oz (1900) and The Secret Garden (1911) among many others, writing of the Edwardian era is permeated by the social and political concerns of the decade. Children’s novels are no exception. Carefully examining how authors chose to clothe their central characters provides a novel method of illuminating some of these concerns. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) and Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children (1905-6) offer vivid character descriptions, which allow the novels’ young audiences to engage with broader contemporary issues including class, gender roles and political reform. As with much children’s literature, both works are illustrated, and engaging with these images alongside the text of each novel adds an interesting dimension to these character descriptions. Each novel carries a different message about the relationship between class and community, and through tracing the use of clothing in each text we can see the different ways these themes are explored, and also much of the underlying Edwardian politics of class and gender play out.

The Edwardian period was one of shifting gender roles influenced by the women’s suffrage movement, and the uses of traditionally gendered clothing in each text are therefore worthy of exploration. Additionally, positioning Nesbit’s novel alongside Grahame’s highlights the relatively progressive nature of Nesbit’s writing. Ultimately, by following how each author dresses their characters, and how this varies between the texts, we can reflect more broadly on each author’s contemporary concerns about class, gender, and politics. Their contrasting attitude on each of these issues is reflective of debates about the changes occurring during the Edwardian period, thus demonstrating that even children’s literature of the time was permeated by contemporary social and political concerns.


Clothes and Class


In The Railway Children, a wealthy, middle class family is forced to adapt to living in relative poverty. Despite their decreased income, the family “wore the same kind of nice clothes they had always worn”.[1] The children have evidently been reasonably shielded from their precarious financial situation. More importantly, their clothing suggests that their mother wants to present the family as being wealthier than they really are, to “keep up appearances” as it were. When the Station Master catches Peter stealing coal he observes that the children are “always so nicely dressed”, suggesting that the wider community is unaware of the financial strain the family is facing.[2]

The issue of Mother’s pride and her reluctance to accept help is a prominent feature throughout the rest of The Railway Children. This initial attempt to make sure her children are not perceived of as being poor is an early demonstration of her belief that people “must never, never, never ask strangers to give you things”.[3] She is instilling a sense of pride in her children by telling them not to ask for help, and also keen to suggest that the family’s relative poverty is a temporary state rather than something they need to adjust to long-term. Critic Jacqueline Rose argues that, in children’s literature “luxury is never a neutral concept […] not so much an achievement, or consummation, as the beginnings of a divide”.[4] It is certainly true that in The Railway Children the family’s affluence, “pretty clothes, good fires, a lovely nursery with heaps of toys” is employed to reinforce the differences between the children’s life in London and their experiences in the countryside.[5] It also allows Nesbit to show the tension between Mother’s attempts to provide for her children and dress them in the clothes she is accustomed to with the fact that she simply cannot afford to do so anymore.

Rose’s claim that luxury serves as “the beginning of a divide” is not, however, always the case in The Railway Children. When the children try to gather gifts for Mr Perks we see the display of luxury as having the potential to form bonds within the community and break down class divisions. Most notably, the children’s mother donates clothes for Mr Perks’ children, but does so on the condition that “Mr Perks won’t be offended and think that it’s meant for charity […] we’re poor ourselves”.[6] Here clothing is being used to break down some of Mr Perks’s stubborn pride while at the same time supporting Mother’s. Mother’s remarks suggest that she understands the issue of pride, and is afraid of her generosity being misconstrued as “charit[able]”.

The luxury enjoyed by the middle classes forms the root of the self-consciousness felt by the poorer members of the community, which Mother is only able to fully understand after experiencing a change in her own ability to identify as middle class. Nesbit’s text therefore gives readers a reminder of the importance of setting aside class divides and allowing oneself to be assisted by the community. The relationship between clothing, gender, and class is so deeply engrained in society that these texts would have served to reinforce lessons their young readers were learning from the nursery onwards. Nesbit’s relatively progressive text therefore offers its young audience subtle challenges to some of these norms relating to the role of class in society.

Turning to consider the illustrations of The Railway Children, the expression of these social norms is reinforced by looking at the pictures that accompanied the original text. The novel’s first edition was illustrated by C.E. Brock,[7] whose simple, black and white images help to emphasise the novel’s key plot points and provide another valuable dimension to Nesbit’s characterisation. They offer a visual reinforcement of Nesbit’s descriptions of the characters, with the children appearing in appropriate period clothing. While their clothes are relatively plain, their bonnets and the girls’ stockings help to present them as relatively respectable, well-presented children. The children are also presented as being relatively young, in contrast to later editions which depict the children as being older than Nesbit originally intended them to be. Providing a visual reminder of their youthfulness therefore reminds the reader of the children’s innocence and lack of ability to understand their financial situation.

“Afternoon tea, she announced proudly”, Nesbit: 127

In The Wind in the Willows clothing is also used to differentiate characters by class, but Grahame does so in order to demonstrate the relative affluence of the members of the riverbank community. Since the characters in the novel are animals, clothing provides a physical marker of each character’s position within the riverbank society and acts as a way that readers can understand its class hierarchy. When Rat first meets Mole he tells him “I like your clothes awfully […] I’m going to get a black velvet smoking-suit myself some day, as soon as I can afford it.”.[8] Wealth and appearance are linked from the offset.

While this instance is clearly a joke about Mole’s velvet fur, a velvet smoking suit is also an obvious marker of disposable income, one which is typically associated with domestic leisure. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel as one of luxury and privilege, as the central characters are free to spend their time as they please rather than needing to contribute to society. Hard work, chores and other mundane tasks are left to “invisible hands” in The Wind in the Willows, and dressing the characters as wealthy gentlemen is one way for Grahame to establish Rat and Mole’s position within the relatively strict class structure which exists throughout the text.[9] John David Moore argues that the greatest threat to the stability of the riverbank community is class: “people not knowing their place”.[10] By utilising clothing as a clear marker of class throughout the novel Grahame is able to emphasise this strict hierarchy in the novel.

The first edition of The Wind in the Willows was not illustrated; however, numerous artists have attempted to support Grahame’s work with illustrations over the years. Here I have chosen to refer to Ernest H. Shepard’s illustrations as he was the only artist to work directly with Grahame when creating an illustrated version of the story, and his illustrations engage more directly with the text than the works of illustrators from the same period.[11] He takes care to dress the characters in a similar style to Grahame’s descriptions, with Mr Toad being presented in bright colours that reflect his desire to look both fashionable and upper class. In contrast, Badger is dressed in softer colours, in clothing that looks designed for comfort rather than for vanity. Rat and Mole’s belted coats and coloured shirts place them firmly within the upper-middle class gentry, part way between Toad’s extravagance and Badger’s practical attire. Here the illustrations support the representation of class hierarchy Moore discusses, and provides a recurring visual reminder of the riverbank society’s social structure.

“The hour is come! Follow me!”, Grahame: 269

I would argue, though, that Moore’s belief that this text is fundamentally conservative is limited by Grahame’s presentation of Mr Toad, the wealthiest character in the novel. His appearance is used to demonstrate the tension between his position as a symbol of upper class aristocracy and his constant quest for modernity and new technology. When his driving outfit is first described we are told, “Toad is busy arraying himself in those singularly hideous habiliments so dear to him, which transform him from a (comparatively) good-looking Toad into an Object”.[12] The archaic language used to describe Toad’s clothes juxtaposes his constant ambition for progress and adventure.

Badger fails to understand why Toad dresses the way he does, demonstrating his lack of appreciation of Toad’s interests, which do not align with his own. Toad is presented as an advocate of fashion in contrast to Badger’s practicality. This tension between prioritising outward appearance over comfort plays into Edwardian notions of wealth and displays of personal wealth. It also engages with the so-called “crisis of masculinity” that emerges in literature of the period, with vanity and interest in fashion being stereotypically feminine traits.

Indeed, this notion of masculine insecurity features prominently in many children’s works of the Edwardian era, including J.M. Barrie’s patriarch Mr Darling in Peter Pan (1904). In the midst of an overblown crisis about his outfit Darling melodramatically declares to his wife: “if I don’t go to the office again you and I starve, and our children will be thrown into the streets”.[13] His hyperbolic speech highlights a genuine concern facing the men of the Edwardian period: the importance of providing for one’s family during a period of social and cultural uncertainties. While Mr Toad is not facing comparable economic hardships, he is nevertheless being depicted with typically feminine traits, such as his enthusiasm for fashion, thus allowing Grahame’s work to engage with this emerging social concern of the era. The relatively brief final scene where Toad appears to repent does not completely resolve this tension between Mr Toad’s interests and mannerisms and the strictly hierarchical world he inhabits.

Also, it is worth noting that Badger is presented as existing outside of the strict class system of the riverbank, and this is reflected in how he is dressed. He is seen wearing “a long dressing gown, and whose slippers were very down at heel”.[14] This is a neutral garment worn by other characters throughout the text including Mole and Rat. Appearing in bedclothes creates a feeling of intimacy, and would also have been unacceptable in contemporary society. Badger’s willingness to receive guests when dressed this way highlights his lack of concern for societal expectations. Also, aside from the observation that his shoes are worn down there is no other obvious marker of wealth or class in his appearance.

Throughout the text Badger is the only character in the Wild Wood that the riverbank creatures trust, and dressing him in a relatively neutral outfit when he is introduced to the reader helps to reinforce this unique position. The position of power Badger holds, especially over Mr Toad, in spite of his lack of outward displays of wealth suggests that the class system in Grahame’s novel may not be quite as rigid as Moore believes it to be. The ethereal character of Pan is presented in an even more ambiguous manner, presenting both a challenge to any artist attempting to depict his character and another challenge to Grahame’s strict class hierarchy.


Gendered Garments


Turning away from focussing on class, the use of typically women’s clothing in each text reflects each author’s attitudes towards contemporary debates over women’s role in society. In The Railway Children there are two occasions where the girls are able to act as heroines by using their petticoats: once when they halt a train and once when they save Jim. The scene with the train is later referred to as “red-flannel-petticoat day”, serving as a reminder that it was the girls who were heroines just as much as Peter, and that they did so using a traditionally feminine garment.[15] Usually worn for aesthetic purposes, petticoats are also a form of underwear, so exposing them in such a prominent way in front of male observers adds an element of the risqué or the taboo to these scenes.

The girls’ willingness to act in such a way suggests their relative innocence and naivety about society’s expectations regarding how they should behave around the men in their community. At the very least, this act of destroying their undergarments in such a bold way indicates their resourcefulness and courage in the face of adversity. On another level, these garments are a marker of class, so destroying them adds to the sense that the children do not fully appreciate their family’s poverty or their mother’s desire to present the family as being wealthier than they are.

It is Bobbie who thinks creatively and offers a solution to the crisis rather than her brother and the children are portrayed as equals throughout the majority of the text.[16] In Brock’s illustration of the scene with the train the girls are placed in the centre of the image, taking the decisive action to stop the train. Bobbie’s skirt falls to just above her knees, in contrast to the longer length seen in earlier illustrations of the girls and their mother. This could suggest that Bobbie is a child, and therefore not constrained by societal expectations of her behaviour and appearance. Alternatively, it can be seen to support Bobbie’s characterisation as a sort of “new woman”, and an indicator of her position within the generation of women who will go on to challenge societal expectations of young women. This progressive attitude towards gender is seen earlier in the novel when Peter asks if girls can mend train engines his father tells him: “Of course they can. Girls are just as clever as boys, and don’t you forget it!”.[17] 

The driver and fireman got off the engine, Nesbit: 109

There are, of course, limitations to this progressive attitude, which becomes more apparent towards the end of the novel. When Bobbie uses her white petticoat to bandage Jim’s broken leg she observes: “what a useful thing flannel petticoats are! The man who invented them ought to have a statue”.[18] In this case Bobbie is seen in a far more feminine gendered role: nursing the lost boy. She assumes that the petticoat was invented by a man, and therefore undercuts her own ingenuity in solving the problem by crediting its solution to someone else. Her petticoat is white rather than red one she was wearing previously, connoting innocence and purity. She is using it to nurse her companion, so the white also evokes the idea of bandages. In both instances clothing provides a link between the traditional feminine garments the girls are wearing and their behaviour, which is decidedly less restricted than it would have been in previous generations. Although the girls return to more traditional roles at the end of the novel, these scenes would have resonated with a young audience that was growing up in the era of the women’s suffrage movement.

In contrast, the usage of women’s clothing in The Wind in the Willows suggests much more conservative attitudes about the status of women. Mr Toad’s escape from prison is a result of his dressing as a washerwoman. The fact he is not recognised as soon as he puts on a dress is clearly for humorous effect, but it also reflects the fact that in the riverbank society men could never plausibly be dressed in a woman’s outfit. When Mr Toad escapes prison he is forced to leave behind his clothes: “both coat and waistcoat […] all that distinguishes the many-pocketed animal, the lord of creation, from the inferior one or no pocketed productions”.[19]

Mr Toad is a supremely arrogant character, and his self-worth stems from his wealth and the status it provides him in society. His self-presentation is of paramount importance to him, and he struggles with the thought of dressing as someone of a lower class, emphasising his vanity and shallowness. However, when an old man at the train station addresses him as a woman it “anger[s] Toad more than anything”, suggesting that his discomfort stems from being presented as a woman rather than having to appear as a member of the lower classes.[20] All of the women present in the novel live outside of the riverbank community in the Wide World, where Toad was not supposed to venture,[21] suggesting that Grahame’s idyllic countryside paradise is a place for wealthy men of leisure rather than women. Nurturing roles in the novel are fulfilled by men, in the place of absent mothers and wives. Women serve no valuable purpose in the riverbank community, and Toad’s appropriation of women’s clothing to serve his own ends demonstrates the lack of attention paid to women throughout the novel as a whole.

Returning to Shepard’s visual depictions of The Wind in the Willows, his illustration of Mr Toad dressed as the washerwoman presents him as vulnerable and effeminate. Mr Toad is dressed in pink, with his bonnet askew, and he is looking worriedly at the group of men who are pursuing him. Shepard’s illustrations capture a specific line in the text, in this case, “out of the tunnel burst the pursuing engine”[22] allows the reader to pinpoint the precise moment his illustration is depicting. Mr Toad as at the edge of some trees, perhaps symbolic of his close proximity to the danger of the Wild Wood. Illustrations should support the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the text, and the careful portrayal of Mr Toad’s fear at this moment adds to Grahame’s original text, which tells us that that Toad “scrambled into the wood and hid”, and was “peeping out” from the trees.[23] The illustration is therefore both helping the reader to visualise this scene, and evoking some empathy for Toad’s plight.

“Out of the tunnel burst the pursuing engine”, Grahame: 176

Finally, clothing offers a means of illuminating the more progressive political message of The Railway Children, particularly in the episode with the Russian refugee. Father’s clothes are used to dress the rescued man living with them at their home. Bobbie sees her mother giving them to the Russian: “the name marked on the shirt was Father’s name. Then Father hadn’t taken his clothes with him. And that night-shirt was one of Father’s new ones”.[24] By reinforcing that the Russian is dressing in Father’s clothes, Nesbit is highlighting the obvious comparisons between the prisoner and the children’s absent father. The clothes are “too big” for him, perhaps indicating that none of the other pseudo-father figures in the novel can quite live up to the image of the children’s real father.[25] The “shabby” clothes he arrives at the station in are an obvious marker of the suffering he has undergone in prison, so it is natural that Bobbie and her mother will draw comparisons between the sight of the Russian and their worries about how Father is coping in prison for an equally unjust supposed crime.

Here clothing is used as just one means by which Nesbit skilfully ties one of the novel’s many pseudo-father figures to the children’s real father. Once this connection has been established, Nesbit is able to draw more subtle comparisons between the two, which may not have been obvious to a child, but would have resonated with an older reader. Aiding the starved Russian is also an act of charity, so Mother’s eagerness to offer aid to a stranger also underscores her growing awareness of the need to openly help members of the community without judgement.

Through tracing the uses of clothing in The Wind in the Willows and The Railway Children we can illuminate several broader themes relating to the social and political concerns of the era in which the novels were written. Ultimately, the care taken to clothe each character in these texts demonstrates the attention each author was paying to accurately conveying contemporary issues to their young audiences. Considering the illustrations of each text helps us to engage the reading experience that a contemporary audience would have enjoyed.

In Nesbit’s more progressive novel clothing is used to highlight issues created by a strict class system: namely pride and the suffering it can cause. By using the innocence of the children Nesbit is able to demonstrate a community beginning to resolve these issues, and sharing clothing is just one way in which they do so. Employing gendered clothing also highlights Nesbit’s progressive attitudes towards women’s rights, as she allows the male and female children equal share of the heroism in the novel’s dramatic moments. The uses of Father’s clothing for the greater good equally help to underscore the political undertones of the text, including Nesbit’s own left-wing beliefs.

In contrast in The Wind in the Willows, despite employing a cast of animals who did not require clothing at all, the care Grahame takes to clothe them appropriately to their class illuminates his need to demonstrate the rigid class structure of his riverside community. Women are almost absent from the novel, and they appear only to further Mr Toad’s narrative and to highlight the dangers of the Wild World outside of the sanctuary of the riverbank. This directly contrasts the altruism of Mother in The Railway Children who puts the needs of others before her own throughout the novel and allows women to assume a prominent role in the text. The different ways in which these two novels utlise clothing as a metaphor for wider social conditions allows a contemporary reader to see the tensions felt in Edwardian Britain, and to hear both sides of the contemporary debates about issues including the crumbling class system, women’s suffrage, and growing support for a more liberal, egalitarian society.


Illustrations taken from:

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows: Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard, (London: Methuen, 1960)

Edith Nesbit. The Railway Children, with Illustrations by C.E. Brock. (Middlesex: Puffin Books, 1960)

[1] Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children, (London, 2000): 36

[2] Ibid. 28

[3] Ibid. 66

[4] Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan, or, the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (London, 1984): 107

[5] Nesbit: 2

[6] Nesbit: 184

[7] Nesbit, 7.

[8] Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, (London, 2000): 14

[9] Lois R. Kuznets, “Kenneth Grahame and Father Nature, or Whither Blows The Wind in the Willows?, Children’s Literature, Vol. 16 (1988), 175-81: 176

[10] John David Moore, “Pottering about in the Garden: Kenneth Grahame’s Version of the Pastoral in ‘The Wind in the Willows’”, The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), 45-60: 55

[11] Albert Borden Stridsberg, “On Illustrating Kenneth Grahame”, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1949), 28-35: 29

[12] Grahame: 108

[13] J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Other Plays. (Oxford, 2008): 91

[14] Grahame: 66

[15] Nesbit: 82

[16] Noimann, Chamutal. “‘Poke Your Finger into the Soft Round Dough’: the Absent Father and Political Reform in Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children”, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 30 No. 4, 2005, 368-385: 374

[17] Nesbit: 7

[18] Nesbit: 235

[19] Grahame: 155

[20] Ibid.

[21] Kuznets: 178

[22] Grahame: 109

[23] Grahame, 181.

[24] Nesbit, 155.

[25] Ibid., 108.